Tennessee legislative session ends with minor medical victories

Last update: June 28, 2018


On April 25, 2018, the Tennessee Legislature adjourned, ending its 2017-2018 session. Lawmakers filed more than 30 marijuana-related bills during the session. Although progress was made, none of the bills were enacted.

Sen. Steven Dickerson and Rep. Jeremy Faison’s Medical Cannabis Act (HB 1749/SB 1710) would have allowed patients with serious medical conditions to access medical marijuana through a state-regulated program. A House subcommittee voted 3-3 on advancing the bill. The House Speaker then cast the tie-breaking vote that moved the bill to the full House Criminal Justice Committee, which advanced the legislation by a 9-2 vote. Several weakening amendments were added in order to garner support. Ultimately, Sen. Dickerson chose to withdraw the bill, fearing that passage of an extremely narrow bill would indefinitely delay passage of comprehensive medical legislation.

Sixty-two percent of Americans live in one of the 30 states that allow the doctor-advised, medical use of cannabis. These laws are working well, enjoy strong popular support, and are protecting patients. The vast majority of Tennesseans — 81% — agree that seriously ill Tennessee patients should also have access to medical cannabis, according to an April 2018 MTSU poll.

Please take a moment to encourage your legislators to pass a meaningful, inclusive medical marijuana bill that includes in-state access to medical cannabis.

For more information visit our medical marijuana page.

Current marijuana laws in Tennessee

Marijuana, for both medical and recreational uses, is not legal in Tennessee. However, there is an exception, effected by bill SB 280, that allows the use of high-CBD, low-THC cannabis oil for seizure patients.

Possession and cultivation both remain illegal. Possession of any amount is a misdemeanor, punishable by one year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine. Cultivation of 10 plants or less is a felony, punishable by one to six years in prison and a $5,000 fine, and the penalties increase exponentially for each additional plant being grown.

Decriminalization hits roadblock


The two largest cities in Tennessee, Memphis and Nashville, both passed ordinances in 2016 that give an officer the discretion to charge someone with a civil infraction for possessing small amounts of marijuana. One of the reasons for this was that the criminal law has been enforced unequally: In 2010 in Tennessee, there were four African Americans arrested for marijuana possession for every white arrested, despite the fact that both races consume marijuana at about the same rate.

However, Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill that repealed marijuana decriminalization laws in Nashville and Memphis. The bill said “state government law preempts local government enactments with respect to the regulation of and appropriate sanctions for conduct involving drugs and other similar substances.” This controversy highlights the need for statewide reform. Please ask your legislators to support replacing criminal penalties with civil fines for simple possession.

Tennessee slightly reduces penalties for marijuana possession


Third and subsequent convictions for the possession of marijuana used to be felonies, punishable by one to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000. But in 2016, the legislature reduced that penalty to a misdemeanor, so people convicted of non-violent possession of most drugs will no longer suffer the stigma of a life-long felony record.

Timeline of marijuana policy reform in Tennessee


1981: In 1981, HB 314 created a therapeutic research program — which was operational — for cancer chemotherapy or radiology or glaucoma (marijuana or THC). The program was administered by a Patient Qualification Review Board within the Board of Pharmacy, which was authorized to contract with the federal government for marijuana. The program was repealed by SB 1818 in 1992.

2015: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed SB 280 into law, against his earlier opposition. The bill legalized the possession and use of marijuana to treat a limited number of severe conditions, including epilepsy. The bill has no provisions for legal sale, thus requiring patients to acquire the drug outside the state of Tennessee; possession of CBD oil without proof that it was obtained legally outside of Tennessee is a misdemeanor.

2016: Tennessee tweaked its ineffective low-THC law by enacting HB 2144 on May 20, 2016. The law provides that patients may possess CBD oils with no more than 0.9% THC if they have “a legal order or recommendation” for the oil and they or an immediate family member have been diagnosed with epilepsy by a Tennessee doctor.

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